War and Material Reality: the social life of things designed to kill

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford
Department Name: International Development


What are the social, political and economic networks of an Improvised Explosive Device (IED)? How can its path from production to afterlife reveal the hidden dynamics of contemporary conflict? Aim: To understand the life of an item of explosive ordnance from inception to destruction and the tangible, global networks it participates in. Inspired by the conventional weapons turned IEDs I destroyed while working as a humanitarian IED expert in Iraq and following Appadurai's seminal work 'The Social Life of Things' (1986), I will use a single object to explore the interconnected nature of seemingly distant conflicts. Using a framework of actor network theory from Latour (2005) and materiality from Gell (1998) and Miller (2005), I will consider the IED as an actor entangled in global human-object networks. Unlike existing anthropological literature on abandoned weapons (Kim, 2016; Henig, 2019) I will bring technical, explosive ordnance expertise to this research. Through this research I will consider the material and lived reality of conflict across continents through the story of a single thing. This research will use a novel and multidisciplinary approach to research the biography of an IED and in doing so will expose the connections between policy making, production, trading, and arming, with the individuals with whom the objects so often end up harming. Methodology: The construction of an object biography using archaeological and anthropological methods including material analysis of the IED and its surrounds, qualitative interviews, and archival and literature research. This will include a three-month fieldwork period in Iraq as well as UK based fieldwork including interviews with members of the armed forces, and weapons manufacturers. The finished research will trace an IED's journey, critically analysing its role in shaping the networks in which it participates. Relevance: The production, trade, deployment and abandonment of weapons continues to proliferate. This research is unique in coupling technical expertise in explosives (rare in academia) with archaeological and anthropological methods to develop understandings of contemporary human-weapon relations. This multidisciplinary approach will produce new insights into the life of weapons, specifically abandoned and repurposed weapons with the potential to significantly inform debates across international development, materiality, anthropology and conflict policy.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000649/1 30/09/2017 29/09/2027
2886870 Studentship ES/P000649/1 30/09/2023 29/09/2026 Rosanna O'Keeffe